Networks Aren’t Tuned in to the Environment
By using storytelling to illuminate issues, ‘we tricked everyday viewers into paying attention to environmental news.’
There’s a saying among reporters who cover the environment: environmental stories don’t break. They ooze. And because they do, they present a challenge for those of us in television, a medium addicted to breaking news, especially if you work for the network that invented the nonstop news cycle.
Back when CNN was the only 24-hour news outlet, it wasn’t quite as tough to get time to cover beats that might not lend themselves to fast-paced breaking news stories. Several shows were built around such reporting—science and technology, health, food, travel and parenting. Each had a weekly half-hour showcase. So did the environment.
The CNN show “Earth Matters” aired from 1993 until just after AOL acquired CNN in January 2001. I hosted and reported for the show during its last few years. During much of that time, “Earth Matters” was usually the second highest rated show of the network’s Sunday schedule. This was pretty good for a show with a small budget, tinier staff, and Sunday afternoon time slot.
Using Storytelling to Report Environment News
Why did “Earth Matters” work? I think it was because we stayed away from the thou-shalt-recycle, thou-shalt-hug-a-tree, activist-oriented school of environmental coverage. Instead, we used storytelling to illuminate environmental issues. In doing so, we tricked everyday viewers into paying attention to environmental news.
Our efforts paralleled what our print brethren (and sistren) call “narrative journalism” these days. We mixed solid reporting with techniques of fiction—character, setting, plot and theme. The stories concentrated on people, not policy. But by keeping the viewer engaged, we got them thinking about the policy part, too. One example: We did a story on mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. Coal companies blast 400-to-600 feet off the top of mountains to get at the coal that lies beneath. It’s a relatively new method of strip mining, and it produces more coal with fewer workers. So far it has not only flattened peaks, but also buried hundreds of miles of streams in rocky residue.
My crew and I stood on a mountaintop cemetery with a man whose family had lived and played in those hills for generations. We looked down on a flattened moonscape that used to be the mountain next door. We walked with a grandfather—a former miner—who cried remembering his ruined town, the ruined stream where he used to swim and fish with his grandfather when he was a boy. We also visited a mountaintop-removal miner—a father of three whose job is better paying and much safer than crawling in underground mines could ever be. And we toured a mined-out mountain that a coal company touted as rehabilitated. It was still flattened, but planted with grasses and some trees. The scars of mining were less obvious.
The people’s own words told the story. But the opening visuals sold it to the producers. “The mountain state is losing its mountains,” is how my script began, as viewers saw aerial shots of the West Virginia landscape in early autumn. It looked like multicolored bubble wrap writ large. They saw a chunk of a mountain blasted away and followed the camera’s eyes from mountains of lush fall foliage to scraped, dead, artificial plateaus. And to connect this story to our viewers’ lives, they heard how Americans get most of their electricity from coal.
The story aired first on “Earth Matters.” But its visuals and characters made it an easy sell to other shows on CNN and its sister networks. With this story—and hundreds of others—we created a shorter version that would fit more easily into a packed newscast. This way, these stories could be used on all of CNN’s networks, from “Headline News” to “CNN International.” CNN affiliates got them via Newsource satellite feeds.
Over the years, viewers watching CNN’s regular news lineup got a healthy dose of reporting on environmental issues. We dove to the world’s only undersea research laboratory, using the occasion to talk about the health of the coastal ocean and the nature of marine research. We toured an Alabama neighborhood plowed under because of PCB contamination and talked about corporate responsibility and what is and isn’t known about toxic pollution. We got caught in a bison/snowmobile traffic jam in Yellowstone and focused on the controversy about snowmobiling in the world’s first national park.
When “Earth Matters” was cancelled, a few of us stayed on the environment beat. But a lot of our freedom to cover stories we thought were important went away. Instead of doing good work for the show, knowing it would also find a home on other CNN shows, we had to sell stories to other news show producers before getting the green light to devote any resources to our reporting. Environment Reporting Isn’t a ‘Real Beat’ on Television
In the early days of the Bush administration, environmental stories were still a relatively easy sell. Our crew went to Colorado to talk to people about Gale Norton, then the nominee for Secretary of the Interior. And we spent time in Washington, D.C. tracking stories about environmental policy, including the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the fight over storing nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, and the Bush administration’s decision to freeze and review dozens of Clinton-era environmental initiatives.
We were busy, and we were not alone. The Tyndall Report, which tracks network newscasts’ content, found that for network news, 2001 was on a pace to exceed the amount of environmental coverage aired in 1989—the year of the Exxon Valdez and the high-water mark for environmental coverage on television. Of course, September 11 changed all that. And with the trend toward fewer taped reports and more live shots and bickering heads, it’s gotten harder to sell, in advance, well-produced environment stories.
But right now, coverage of energy is more important than ever. As Washington ponders its next steps in the Middle East, oil coats and colors the entire process. There is the al-Qaeda angle, too: If it weren’t for oil, there probably would not have been an enduring American presence in Saudi Arabia to fuel Osama bin Laden’s rage and recruiting efforts. Oil interests are using the call for “energy security” to push for more drilling on public land, while environmentalists work to paint energy conservation as patriotic. It’s unquiet on the electricity front, too—from the Enron crash to debates about renewables and the possibility of clean coal. And nuclear power raises particular security concerns in this new and anxious world.
In newspapers across the country, environment reporters have been covering these issues for years and have built up expertise. But, unlike newspapers, television networks don’t recognize environment reporting as a real beat, one that deserves specialists. Right now, CNN is the only U.S. network with people who are actually called “environment correspondents:” I work on the domestic front; Gary Strieker roams the world, and Sharon Collins holds down the environment desk at “Headline News.”
I’d like to see more broadcast and cable executives take a page from newspapers and recognize the value that environment reporters bring to the newsroom. Boosting environment coverage could also attract those famously coveted younger viewers: Poll after poll shows they are especially interested in environmental coverage.
Even oozing stories have their dramatic moments, and good environment reporting is beautifully suited to television. The visuals are often stunning, the characters are usually compelling, and the questions raised strike at the way all of us live our lives each day. It takes some experience to understand how science, economics and social issues intersect in battles over environmental issues. Viewers deserve experts in this kind of coverage. It’s too bad that, in most cases, that’s not what they’re getting.
Natalie Pawelski is CNN’s environmental correspondent and former host of “Earth Matters.” She is a 2003 Nieman Fellow.